In the United States, it is a profound insult to compare a human to a dog — a mutt, a bitch, a hound dog or an old dog. “Don’t go barking up the wrong tree.” “Look at you, you’re just chasing your tail!”
If you’ve ever spent considerable amount of time around a dog, though, it should be clear that it’s much more of an insult to the dog to be compared with a human. For all the time that humans spend coming up with their clever insults and idioms, they could be appreciating what it actually means to be a dog and why it is that they have put up with humans for the past 15,000 years.
For me, at least, it has been supremely unnatural to think this way about dogs in this sense. When I was 6 and my parents took me to choose a puppy for my very own, dogs were less like living creatures and much more like toys that just happened to bark and wiggle without help from an on-off switch. Even choosing a puppy was akin to an arcade game come to life. I chased puppies around the yard until I cornered one, and she promptly rolled onto her back and waited for me to scratch her tummy. Her name was Prissy — technically Miss Priss II — and that day, she became my dog. I even signed my name on her pedigree form to prove that she was mine. She was six months old when we got her, and I was 6 years old. We both turned 7 the next January. We were like peas and carrots.
For all our similarities, I realize — looking back now — that my precious pooch, who spent her formative years chewing on a squeaky hamburger, surpassed me in wisdom and maturity very quickly. A few months after Prissy moved in with us, she alerted the entire sleeping house to the presence of a drunk and confused man trying to break in. When she was 2, she would defend our female cat from our male cat, running straight into the middle of their spats and barking at him until he slunk away. When she was 3, that same 13-pound dog gave birth to six healthy puppies.
Over the years, Prissy submitted herself to all sorts of indignities — wearing birthday hats, life vests and a variety of human clothes. She never resisted but would carefully shake herself out of the outfits as soon as I lost interest in dress-up. When I cried, she would stand and stare at me with her large, soulful eyes and her head cocked to the side. She would listen to me blubber for a while before cutting off my tears by licking my hand or cheek, her nub of a tail whipping back and forth furiously. Two years ago, she survived a coyote attack and recovered enough to settle in comfortably in the retirement community my mother moved to.
But last week, my mother told me that my dog, Prissy, has stopped eating, that her kidneys are failing, that she doesn’t wag her tail anymore. After the 16 years we’ve spent together, my puppy is fading away. And I know that when I go home for spring break next week, I will go home to say goodbye.
Most people would be very, very lucky to live life like Prissy. When dogs live, they live with their whole being, and when they love, they love all of you and forever. They never ask questions and never hesitate in their love. They never expect anything in return, except maybe some kibble and peach yogurt.
According to psychologists, the college-age period of our lives, “emerging adulthood,” is the time when we learn to form lasting relationships, to grow in our intimacy with others and to love. Many times, we do so with trepidation. Our fears of rejection, of failure, of being hurt temper the passion with which we live and love. So perhaps there is something to learn from dogs. Dogs love with all of themselves every single day without any contracts or assurances that love will be returned to them. Many times it isn’t, and because of that, they are completely vulnerable to the whims of human stupidity and cruelty. Still, they love.
My mom told 6-year-old me that having my own dog would teach me to be responsible to and to value the lives of creatures who weren’t human. What she didn’t tell me — and what perhaps she didn’t realize — was that the puppy who shredded my father’s checkbook and loved having her tummy scratched even more than she loved treats would teach me about the nature of how we love: that if we can try to love like a dog, without fear or hesitation, we can “emerge” into adulthood with the ability to consider love as a force greater than our failed relationships and anxiety over finding a mate. We can extend love into every corner of our lives and live bigger than the boundaries we create to try to keep ourselves safe. And that’s the doggone truth.